Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Life is TOUGH Down Here!

 


Life is TOUGH Down Here!

 

Matthew 4:1-11
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

4:3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."

4:4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,

4:6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

4:7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;

4:9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."

4:10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

 

Well, Lent 2023 is off and running. Traditionally, Lent is a time for Christian people to re-examine themselves, buff up their relationship with God and others with whom they live and love, and repent of the things that do harm to any of these relationships. These are noble aims for Lent. It begins with the thought, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Indeed, thanks TO the grace of God, I don’t GO there! 

 

I always felt that Lent was better used as a time for self-EXAMINATION, rather than some form of self-DENIAL, but the latter may be more your cup of Lenten tea? Ask yourself, though, what is the significance of what you choose to give up or deny to yourself? Is what you are exorcising from your life something that either will cleanse you of a residual, persistent sin? Or is it something costly that, by giving it up, you can now afford to give to an important cause? I could never see the spirituality of giving up chocolate or pizza for Lent, especially if you plan on taking them back up with abandon after the season is over. I suppose one could make a case that, by giving up some favorite activity or food during Lent, it would serve as a continual reminder of the season, and point the individual in God’s direction with a more intense focus. Frankly, though, the best testimonies I have heard coming out of meaningful Lenten observances are usually related to a discipline of self-examination, repentance, and spiritually-formative behavior modification. 

 

During my years of active ministry, I also felt Lent was a good time for the church to do a little examination, too. Rather than just “get busy” like we typically do during the high church seasons, the congregations I served often tried to study a book together or approach a difficult topic like dismantling racism, or some other area of social justice, in an effort to build more healthy relationships with our community and the world around us. I usually encouraged my parishioners to “take up something for Lent,” rather than engage in self-denial. That “something” could be joining a study group, developing a regular scripture reading plan or engaging in lectio divina Bible devotional practice. Maybe it could be taking up a new volunteer opportunity, or committing to increased financial stewardship. I found that the “taking up something for Lent” idea resonated with more folk than self-denial.

 

Now that we’ve introduced the “invitation to the disciplines of Lent,” I want to go a little different direction with this message. The text from Matthew is a familiar one, often labeled “the temptation of Jesus.” It, and last week’s text about the Transfiguration, point to the earthly challenges Jesus faced in his detour among the created order. The Transfiguration came at a time when Jesus was “spent,” and in need of ministry, himself. Moses and Elijah showed up, presumably to encourage him, and possibly to instruct him in the ways that what would happen soon—the trial and crucifixion—would be the culmination of God’s redemptive acts throughout history. Only in his case, it will be the capstone of a process leading to the restoration of all of humankind to a relationship with their creator. This time, the “salvation” will not be limited to Israel.

 

In today’s story, Jesus faces a “personal” temptation with Satan. The text reads almost like a parable or a fable, and whether this event actually “happened” could be open to debate, in that the storyteller—Matthew—most certainly did not witness it. We could guess that Matthew heard Peter, James or John tell of what they had witnessed, but of course, we have no record of this, and we DO know that Matthew, who was trying to convince Jews of the efficacy of Jesus, would regularly include stories or references in his narrative that harkened back to the Hebrew history, even when he got them wrong. Or, we could surmise that Jesus interpreted this event  to his disciples, and if so, it was probably reduced to a more parabolic form by him to make the points that 1) temptation is universal, as even the Son of God was tempted; and 2) resisting temptation is possible, if we use the defenses and “remedies” of our faith. 

 

For our brief examination of this text, I want to focus on the last verse: 

 

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

 

Let’s remember that the story is about JESUS—the Son of God—being tempted personally by the devil. While it might be a kind of moral lesson intended for Christ’s disciples, then and now, its hyperbolic pitting of GOD against SATAN is telling. In light of it, who are WE, that we believe we will escape temptation? And who are WE, that we believe we might triumph over its seductive clutches ALONE, when we do? Jesus needed the Word of God and his “mind of Christ” to beat old slew-foot, and then was restored to “health” by the “sudden” visitation by ANGELS FROM HEAVEN! Remember, this was JESUS! 

 

As a pastor, two things often mystified me, regarding “temptation” and some of the attempts to overcome it, by people I met. First of all, I met more than a few believing Christians who almost claimed a kind of “immunity” over temptation, simply because they “stayed too close to God” to let it happen. How close to God do you think Jesus was? And still, he was tempted. Temptation is a constant and widely-varied problem for the human being. Before we “activate” our redeeming relationship with Jesus Christ, temptations of all kinds keep us believing we can “conquer” anything, and tease us that we are “masters of our own domain.” It works until it doesn’t. And when things fall, WE fall hard, usually. But temptations continue, even as committed Christian people, because LIFE IS HARD, and the harder it gets, the more we can convince ourselves we “deserve” a little “devil” time to numb our senses. These temptations can take many forms: we justify using a little “chemical” (alcohol? Drugs?) medication to chill out, and WAY too many begin to rely on these, regularly. And that’s not even including those who find out too late that they may harbor a dangerously high “addictive” tendency. Temptation can be a “grass is greener” episode that leads to an adulterous relationship outside of marriage, or an unfaithfulness that destroys a courtship. Temptation may lead to poor career decisions based on a distorted assumption that “we are worth more than this,” or believing that our supervisors aren’t being fair to us. Temptation can even be giving in to psychological or mental deficiencies we KNOW we have, but foolishly choose to deny, or at least temporarily leave the safe harbor of our treatment for them. No matter how you slice it, the difficulties we face in life will often get us in MORE trouble if we yield to the temptations they often lead to, temptations that may be a siren song of an “easy way out” or a cheap solution to difficult challenges. 

 

And what of the devil tempting us, like he did Jesus? Most likely not, if you take the little we know about Satan from the Bible literally. You see, Satan, in this regard, was a “created” being who “fell” from grace, and as such, is limited in power, and finite in presence. Those of us crafted by the Almighty can only be in one place at a time, unlike the omnipresent God we serve. If YOU or I am being “tempted” by the devil, he’s leaving the rest of the world alone, so we might be engaging in an incredibly heroic act of self-sacrifice! No, Jesus gets the personal treatment from the devil; all we get are his “systems” of oppression and temptation.

 

OH, but that is bad enough! If there IS a literal Satan in the world, the one weapon he is left with on this side of Calvary is deception. Unfortunately, it is a nuclear weapon. Deception is the “mother” of all temptations. The systems of deception that are quite alive in the world are exceedingly dangerous and pernicious, whether they emanate from a “satanic” figure, or are a creation of the dark corners of the human mind. When we start believing lies, there is no end to their power. Lies are like opiates—they may lead to a feeling of power or “short cuts” to success, initially, but they are a trap, and their end is personal destruction. Unfortunately, if proliferated, they may harm or destroy our supportive communities, too. You don’t have to accept belief in a literal “devil” to see the devilish influence and power of deception all around us. It can take a genuinely difficult circumstance in life and turn it into a life-crippling disaster. Life IS hard, my friends, and it is these inevitable difficulties that can quickly lead to temptation and its slippery slope. I’m not usually a believer in the propaganda agent that is the “slippery slope,” but when it comes to temptation? Yeah, it is one, for sure.

 

Let’s not forget the angels. Even the Son of God needed a celestial supportive community to pick him up after the temptations offered him by Satan, and the “trials of the soul” they were for even HIM! Who are we to think that we can just cruise through the difficulties we face and the temptations they breed without reaching out to our supportive communities? Depending on what is tempting us to make foolish decisions and commit foolish acts, that community may be the medical community, or the psychological community, or even the legal community. It most certainly for the Christian believer is the community of faith and/or our covenant group or closest Christian friends. REACH OUT when you are being tempted to do things that you KNOW will probably lead to MORE trouble! If drug or alcohol addicts are counseled to call their sponsor when tempted to use, how much more should the people of God reach out to their supportive fellow Christian disciples?

 

One interesting note about this story. The Matthean text says that Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” where he was tempted by Satan. There WAS no audience. Usually, he took disciples or someone with him, but this happens in solitude. Why? Possibly for the reason I mentioned earlier—his temptation was NOT to be ones “common to humans,” and therefore it might be misunderstood by witnesses. Our temptations come from INSIDE ourselves, “planted” there by the deceptive “roots” of human experience, that which we often scapegoat as “original sin.” Jesus DID take Peter, James, and John along to witness the Transfiguration, as he knew that ALL of us would need ministry by OUR supportive communities, and healing after the stressful experiences of life, and THIS could be modeled, even if his supportive community include two of the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Bible! Likewise, this is why it is so important to see the last verse of today’s text—the devil “leaves us” when we apply the defenses God offers us, and THEN we rely on our supportive community to soothe, heal, and strengthen us so we’re ready for the next tempting encounter. It doesn’t matter “who” our supportive community is, and frankly, I’ll bet you have been “picked up” by friends who would certainly rival Moses, Elijah, or even Michael the Archangel himself, in terms of the “power” they offered to help you get back on your feet. I know I have people like that. I’d hold my loving Christian partner, Dara, up against any of those guys! When the going got REALLY tough during my ministry years, it was SO wonderful to just go HOME!

 

Let’s briefly review: when tempted, Jesus appealed to God, God’s Word, and his commitment as a servant of God to make the source of the temptation go away. Then, he accepted and submitted to the ministry of his supportive community to gain back his footing and his strength. If Jesus could be tempted, even more so will we be, and the defenses he used are the same ones we should practice. 

 

May we, during this Lenten season, focus afresh on what Jesus counseled:

 

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.

 

Amen.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

That Glow We Know

 


That Glow We Know

 

Exodus 24:12-18
24:12 The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction."

24:13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God.

24:14 To the elders he had said, "Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them."

24:15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.

24:16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.

24:17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

24:18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

 

Here's a good “church word” for you—transfiguration. It’s Transfiguration Sunday in the liturgical year, a day that celebrates Jesus’ trip to the mountaintop where he winds up in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and begins to glow like a Coleman lantern. We are to surmise that this glow is what one takes on when they are in the ultimate “presence of God,” and I’m sure it didn’t hurt that two of the Bible’s greatest prophets showed up as Jesus’ escorts in this affair. For this gala affair, Jesus took the “human trinity” of Peter, James, and John from his little band, and are we at all surprised that, while all three of them witnessed the arrival of Moses and Elijah, and saw Jesus “transfigured” into an Identified Glowing Object (IGO), it was Peter who went bananas over the scene and wanted to “build tabernacles” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, so they could all stay on the mountain and groove? Were it today, while all of the twelve would have common experiences with Jesus, hearing his teaching, being eyewitnesses to his miracles, and so forth, it would be Peter putting it on Facebook, we can be pretty sure.

 

Clearly, Moses was the “Jim Lovell” of the transfiguration event. Like the veteran astronaut (Gemini 7, 12 and Apollo 8) who became the steadying influence for an otherwise rookie crew during the Apollo 13 crisis, Moses had been to the mountaintop with God before. This was Jesus’ first transfiguration, and it was a first for Elijah, if we don’t count HIS spaceflight on the fiery chariot. We don’t know what they all talked about, but one wonders if the talk included Elijah giving the prophetic line to Jesus on what he was about to face, and Moses, offering wisdom and consolation, that Jesus was the culmination of the great plan for all of God’s people that the great prophet had received a hint of on Horeb a number of centuries earlier. The scriptures give us no hint of the content of that conversation, but the “glow” that overcomes Jesus is a sure sign that God affirmed it, and signed a pact with Jesus in light, that things were going to happen just as they were supposed to. Every one of us needs affirmation, from time to time, and it would appear that this “everyone” includes the Son of God. And God went all out, too—not just with the glow, but sending Moses and Elijah? Wow, these were two political and theological “heavy hitters!” 

 

Fire, clouds, and light are God’s “calling cards” in the Bible. Pillars of fire and clouds guided Israel through the wilderness after they were set free from Egypt. Clouds shrouded the “Mountain of God” (Horeb) when God was present, and today’s text says that God’s presence also appeared as a “devouring fire” there, in the sight of the people of Israel. We know that when Moses descends from the mountain his face glowed with a shine probably similar to the transfiguration of Jesus. Fire, clouds, and light. Fire purifies, clouds, while they may obscure things, also symbolize “change,” as in the weather, and light, well, numerous times the Bible tells us “God is light.”

 

The “glow” of God’s presence is not necessarily always borne of the literal giving off of light that could be measured with a light meter, but that “glow” on the faces of persons who have been in the presence of God is often quite real. I’ve seen it on the faces of people who were prayed for at an altar rail, on the face of some about to depart this life when they gaze beyond those gathered around their beds and see the face of their Savior, and on the tiny faces of infants as they are being baptized into the family of God. As I write this message, what some are calling a “revival” has broken out at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Thousands have descended upon the chapel at that college, joining students who have been inside for days, experiencing the presence of God in an unusual way, not unlike Moses on Horeb or Jesus in the Transfiguration. Calling this event a “revival” harkens back to an earlier time in Christendom; maybe today it should be dubbed an ”in-breaking” or a “visitation of the Spirit.” Whatever we might call it, its genuineness and impact will be measured by time, changed lives, and maybe the “glow” that some have seen on the faces of those who there have “entered into God’s presence.” Even as a “revival” had occurred at Asbury College before, might it be that God chose that site as a “mountain” upon which to “visit” a couple different generations of God’s people? Seems to me, that is what is happening in these two “mountaintop” stories in the Bible. The place, itself, might not be important, but it BECOMES important when God says, “Meet you at the pole!”—or at Jumonville, or in the college chapel.

 

I’ll bet many of you who may read this message have had your own “mountaintop” experiences with God, be they with a group, or alone with God. And while there may not have been witnesses around to see a “glow” on our face, you remember a warmth deep inside yourself. And like the unusual nature of what is going on at Asbury, you knew it was different, you knew it was good, and you knew it was given to you by God. The reason the Bible talks about “the heart” so much is that these things FEEL like they are happening right there in our chest, don’t they? And if you haven’t yet had one of these experiences, your time will come—just be faithful and keep trusting God!

 

One of the dangers of “mountaintop” experiences is that we have a tendency to want to preserve them, or sustain them. That was Peter’s line on the Transfiguration event—“Let me build three tabernacles for you guys and we can just stay up here!” It is a danger of Asbury-type “revivals” or numinous experiences like that, too. They feel so good, and may exhibit such life-changing power that we just don’t want to leave them. Like old Polaroid photos, we want to coat them with that lacquer stuff to keep them forever. Or, we may fight to sustain them after “Elvis has left the building.” Let us never forget the blessing these kinds of unique experiences are, but let us also not forget that God is the host of them, and when God says they are over, they are over. We have no power over the fire, the cloud, or the light of them.

 

That’s not to say that the efficacy of them goes away. I believe a couple of books were written about the February, 1970 chapel revival at Asbury College, and I have known a number of friends who were students there at that time, and whose lives were permanently blessed and altered by that event. Who knows what will come of the lives touched by this “visitation”? I don’t know what to make of the number of “outsiders” who have felt compelled to drive long distances or hop a plane to “take in” the happening at Asbury? Is the Holy Spirit calling these people there? Are they coming out of their own spiritual curiosity or need? Or are they like the crowds that hovered around Jesus, knowing that something “big” was happening, and they just wanted to be in on it? Frankly, I wouldn’t fault them for any of these reasons, but I do hope they don’t get in the way of a “revival” that happened at a college chapel for a reason, and it was probably centered on the 1200 or so students at that institution. Still, even as Jesus could hone in on a woman with an issue of blood in a pressing crowd, or could hear the muffled cries of a lame or blind man in the midst of a mob, I’m sure God can assure that those who have the greatest needs will be touched. The one thing I can deduce from what I have read and heard of the Asbury happening is that this is that “glow we know.” While I am a 68-year-old, liberal/evangelical, ordained elder who has seen his share of weird religious “manifestations,” many of which were ginned up or artificially promoted—things that tend to make me quite skeptical of stuff like this—I DO believe that something wonderful is happening at Asbury, and again, the witness of time and “transfigured” lives will be the proof in that “pudding.” It SO just sounds like something God would be up to in these rapidly-changing times we live in—again, “that glow we know.” One caveat here—pay attention to the witness of the Spirit coming out of this over the weeks, months, and years ahead. Do NOT be surprised if you hear these younger “revivalers” speaking of being called to more diverse understandings of their faith, and to working for more inclusiveness and diversity in the Body of Christ. “Old Line” evangelicals won’t like this, but they should not turn their backs on it, as God may be doing a “new” thing in this “awakening.” 

 

Did you ever wonder what God DID with Moses for “forty days and forty nights” on the mountain? I hope he fed him, or Moses would have been a mess, coming down with those stone tablets. And what of the text telling us that “God wrote” the commandments on the tablets? The time frame of “forties” mentioned by the author is a typical biblical number. And ascribing the actual scribing of the tablets to God was probably a writer’s shortcut, as I just can’t wrap my head around God “sitting down” at a slab of stone and chiseling out the decalogue. Maybe that is why Moses was up there so long—he was “God’s secretary” to get these foundational laws down in writing? If we try to take the Bible too literally, we miss out on the opportunity to ask these interesting questions! We know the outcome, though—the ten commandments that became the base for all of the laws of Israel that guided God’s people in life, and their life with each other, and their life with God. And then Jesus, who said he came to “fulfill the law, not destroy it,” built upon those teachings for us all to live by them. Let us apply this same “outcomes based” evaluation to what God is doing on the latest “mountaintop” at Asbury University.

 

As the Asbury event winds down at some point, watch for emergence of testimonies, listen for the witnesses, expect transfigured lives, and keep an eye out for the “glow we know!” Amen!

Friday, February 10, 2023

MIS-Affiliation

 


Mis-Affiliation

 

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
3:1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.

3:2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,

3:3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?

3:4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?

3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.

3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

3:7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

3:8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.

3:9 For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.

 

Sunday night, many, MANY eyes will be on the TV and the annual “big game” that was long ago dubbed “The Super Bowl.” Do you know how it got that name? Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, and principal of the old American Football League (which merged with the National Football League, which was then divided into the National and American Football Conferences) was the one who named it. After it was decided that the NFL and the AFL (before the merger) would play an annual championship game, he was watching one of his children playing with the latest toy, a jumpy, high-bouncing ball, he asked the child what it was called. “A Super Ball,” came the reply. It hit Mr. Hunt—why not call the big game “The Super Bowl”? It made sense, as the big, season-ending games in the college football world were called “bowl” games because most of the stadiums back then looked like bowls. I think this year’s game is the 57th “Super Bowl.” And it IS a “big game,” as well as big business, big media coverage, big partying, and of course, big gambling. While some will tune in to see the advertisements or the halftime show with Rihanna, most Americans will root for their favorite team, either the Philadelphia Eagles or the Kansas City Chiefs (still owned by the Hunt family, by the way). Those two towns will be rooting for their “home” teams, while the rest of us just choose an affiliation for week, or so. Already, the quarterback of the Chiefs—Patrick Mahomes—has been named the “Most Valuable Player” of the NFL this year, so there is that in Kansas City’s favor. On the other hand, the Eagles have very “complete” team with a strong defense, and they also have the best team “fight” song, although you wouldn’t know it by the way their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, sang it after the Eagles won the NFC championship game a couple of weeks ago. 

 

Another notable about Super Bowl XVII is that it will be the first with two Black starting quarterbacks. Every year, it seems like some “new” element makes this year’s Super Bowl an even bigger game than the previous ones. So, what does all of this have to do with my SERMON for this week? I’m glad you asked that question!

 

In sports, there is nothing at all wrong with having a “favorite” team and rooting for them to win. We may do so because we are from that team’s town (or used to be), because we like the collection of players on the team (or at least their star players), or just because they have a habit of winning pretty regularly. (We Steelers fans still root hard for the Black and Gold, even though our record of winning regularly needs to be viewed through a rearview mirror, at present.) In fact, having a favorite team and rooting for them is what makes a sport popular and prosperous. Not so much, with churches. 

 

Apparently, a competition was raging at the church in Corinth. Paul doesn’t mince words, as he tells the people there that—obviously—they are not ready for “solid” food, but that he must now treat them like the “infants” they are. Not exactly a good come-on line, do you think? Paul says he must address them as “people of the flesh,” which may be a euphemism for his wanting to punch them in the face. As a pastor, I wish I could say that I always treated people with respect and demonstrated compassion, and while I never punched a parishioner, and really don’t remember “yelling” at one, there were times when I wish I could have! And it wasn’t always their fault. Sometimes my frustration was “designed at home”—my anger toward another was occasionally fueled by my own shortcomings, or by something I had really putted up, causing the rift. In psychology, we might diagnose this as “projection,” or blaming another for the very thing YOU are responsible for. Could this have been some of Paul’s problem? While Paul was a well-educated Jewish scholar, he was almost as “new” to this Christian gig as were his parishioners. Remember Obi-wan Kenobi of “Star Wars,” who blamed himself for “failing” to train Anakin Skywalker adequately, and then taking the hit for helping “create” the evil Darth Vader? One wonders if some of Paul’s indignation over what was going on in Corinth wasn’t, at least partly, an “Obi-wan” meltdown. Paul had to feel his way along, and so did the people who were his disciples. We pastors have a clue how hard this is. Of course, there was also that mysterious “thorn in the flesh” with which Paul had to contend, and it, too, could have made him a bit “edgy.” Imagine if it was a really bad case of hemorrhoids, or shingles? 

 

The central issue Paul is losing it over in today’s passage is the “competition” that has broken out among the Corinthian Christians. They had chosen “teams” (“I belong to Paul”…”I belong to Apollos”) and were spiritually duking it out over which “team” was better, and which one got to “bring in the harvest.” It seems their one-upmanship was over who was better to LEAD and which “team” should do the “following,” and therefore, the more menial tasks. Paul tries to defuse this by using one of Jesus’ best arguments—that we are ALL called to a ministry of servanthood, and that we should try to “outdo” one another in SERVING one another. That sure sounds “spiritual,” but as a pastor, I can surely say that it gets a lot of positive head-shaking and righteous-looking facial affirmations, but pretty much the parts of most folk from behind the nose and following just don’t seem to buy it, especially at first. Servanthood, you see, is a REALLY mature concept! Infants and children like to be the center of attention—all the time—so in this regard, Paul’s labeling the Corinthian Christians as “infants” in the faith was right on. Modern parishioners often model this “slow growth” characteristic, as well. Mature, seasoned believers? If they have been an active participant in the life of the congregation, they DO develop a “servant’s heart.” It is important to point out, however, that being a long-term “church member” doesn’t necessarily translate out to having a servant’s heart, which can only develop in community life. Even long-term members can be just as clueless, if they have mostly been ”Lone Rangers.” Less experienced believers/members will more often display the “early childhood development” stage. Some may manifest itself as the kind of competitiveness Paul faced in Corinth, and some of this immaturity may show as “I’m not worthy,” or “I don’t know how” pronouncements. The challenge of pastors and other leaders is to find ways to connect the ”veterans” with the newbies, so they see both HOW to be servant leaders, and why this is important. 

 

At a more macro level, the church seems never to have been able to successfully exorcise this “I’m of Apollos/I’m of Paul” game of champions. From the moment Paul and John Mark parted ways, we have been choosing sides. Modern sects and denominations have their “patron saints” around whom they rally, be it “Calvin” or “Luther” or “Wesley,” or the “Orthodox” vs. the “Roman Catholic,” or the Pope vs. the TV preachers. How about the new “game” on the block—the Global Methodists vs. the “United” Methodists? “I belong to Greenway,” or “I belong to Bickerton.” “I belong to Oliveto” or “I belong to Ongley.” “I belong to the LITERAL Bible” or “I belong to historical-critical interpretation of scripture.” How about “MY church is voting to disaffiliate” or “MY church is staying loyal to the UMC.” As I said last week, THIS “game” or competition is the worst witness Methodism has yet put forth to a world that just needs to hear about the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Doesn’t Paul eventually get around to telling the church at Corinth that we ALL belong to CHRIST? Two thousand years later, and we STILL DON’T GET IT!

 

Choosing between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs is a fun, cultural phenomenon during this Super Bowl weekend. Choosing between factions that are going to split the second largest Protestant denomination in our nation is not fun, and it will NOT be understood by the culture as anything but a “family feud” that demonstrates—yet again—that “those Christians” don’t put their “money where their mouth is.” It has been, and WILL be a negative witness to the inclusive, “grace upon grace” saving truth of Jesus Christ, and it will NOT honor Christ. That the United Methodist Church has stayed “united” to this point—warts and all—has been some kind of a positive witness, albeit a less-than-perfect one, but the culture could always point to the GOOD things we have accomplished together, such as the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) and the various institutions of higher education we spawned and still support, especially through the Black College Fund. Africa University has also been a great success. 


It's no wonder Paul was going postal over the competition in Corinth. He KNEW it was in danger of becoming the BIG, public story about the fledgling Christian church there, when the Gospel should be the REAL “big story.” One can read between the lines of the Corinthians text to see that much more was going on than just a prideful disagreement over who these factions were “with.” The same is true with the United Methodist disaffiliation, that has been polluted with MIS-information, name-calling, in-fighting, and even complaints filed between the “camps” and pastors. What has been a bad public witness will most likely lead to two weakened denominations and more closed churches. It’s too bad we don’t have Paul here to help us straighten this out. We all say we believe in the witness of scripture, but certainly this passage is not being taken too seriously in the MIS-affiliation activity that is slicing and dicing the UMC at this time. How very sad, indeed. 

 

On a more personal level, if I were preaching this message to a congregation, I would urge each and everyone who dares call themselves a Christian to enter into a time of personal confession and discernment. WE are called to be servant leaders and show the world what servanthood to Jesus Christ looks like. We are not called to win arguments or to “disaffiliate” from those with whom we disagree. Search your hearts, friends. Choose this day whom you will serve! Amen.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Seeing Things VERY Differently


 Seeing Things VERY Differently

 

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
2:1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.

2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

2:3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.

2:4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,

2:5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

2:6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.

2:7 But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

2:8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

2:9 But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God"

2:10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

2:11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God.

2:12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

2:13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

2:14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

2:15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny.

2:16 "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.

 

What you have just read is part of one of two, and possibly three letters to the people of the church at Corinth written by the Apostle Paul. Scholars believe we may actually have three different letters, or at least parts of them, recorded in our Bibles as First and Second Corinthians. Why is this important? Partly because it shows that Paul was regularly trying to instruct about and arbitrate for numerous “complications” in this church. The city of Corinth was a prosperous seaport, with the kind of diverse population one might expect in such a center of commerce. From rich to poor, wealthy to “blue collar,” and manifesting a wide variety of religious practices and experience, the rapid growth of the “new” religion of Christianity had brought samples of this diversity into its house churches and meeting places. Paul, raised and educated as a Jewish religious leader, was extremely challenged by this smorgasbord of humanity. We should remember that before meeting Jesus on the Road to Damascus, Paul had been charged with “enforcing” the unity and purity of the Jewish faith by persecuting Christians, who were seen as a blemish on its Jewish roots and heritage.  Now, the transformed Paul is trying hard to look past HIS past and see the kind of future the Holy Spirit had for the fledgling Christian church. This would be a church that had to somehow embrace its diversity, even celebrate it. But this meant finding a way to teach and guide the church inclusively. The difficulty of doing this is not even lost on us TODAY, over 2,000 years later. Imagine Paul’s mind and method trying to apprehend it! But try, he did. We can learn a lot from Paul.

 

In today’s passage, Paul is endeavoring to get the Corinthian Christians to see things in a very different way. While it is nigh unto impossible to remove the human “fingerprints” from what we believe God is doing in our midst, Paul appeals to a novel “mind’s eye” to view it all differently—the ageless wisdom of God Almighty. While addressing a Corinthian congregation about moral issues might more compare to writing a congregation of “believers” assembled in Las Vegas, in our day, the notion of “wisdom” was something central to a Greek-speaking, Greek-educated people. When Paul turns to wisdom as his subject, the readers (or hearers when his words were read out loud) would have grown quiet. Even as we see in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, an appeal to the logos, or collective wisdom and truth of the Divine, got people’s attention, post haste. Paul’s description of God’s wisdom as “secret and hidden” would have directly played the “E string” of the violin of these people’s curiosity. Who doesn’t like a good mystery, and who doesn’t like to hear a secret that has been hidden by the Divine mind for “ages”? They would have wanted this secret, and they would have sought this wisdom. To go even further, Paul brings in the words “power” and “spirit” with his idea, making his appeal even more winsome and impossible to top.

 

Paul is basically selling the idea that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed God’s hidden wisdom to those who trust in Christ. God will empower believers via the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus—to see their lives, their world, and the in-breaking Kingdom of God VERY differently. While these Greek people held human philosophy and wisdom in high esteem, they also understood its limitations, and even its impotence in the face of the things they feared, be it war, tragedy, illness, or even the seemingly continuous arguing and infighting going on in their new church. 

 

Paul draws a parallel between what humans can know because we are human with what God can know because God is God. Again, his audience knew Plato, and that Plato postulated a huge chasm between God and humanity, with only the “things” humans could fashion and possess being very poor “copies” or representations of the Divine “ideas” in the mind of God. Now, here was Paul saying that in Christ, this chasm had been bridged by the very Son of God, and that the Holy Spirit of God would “hook us up” to the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the ages, if we reached out in faith. It all sounds so mystical, but Paul tries so hard in this letter, and in today’s passage, to make it possible, practical, and even inevitable for the Christian believer and for the church. Now, if that isn’t a tough order, I don’t know what is!

 

Interestingly, Paul starts so simply in this passage, claiming to know only “Christ and him crucified,” in an effort to “dial down” the lofty theological rhetoric that was typical in religious discourse. He does, however, go on to describe the incredible, almost unbelievable truths of the Christian Gospel, namely that God had come among us and revealed the great mystery of the ages, and that it was God’s desire that they would share in these. No longer were the precepts of faith entrusted only to “Holy Men,” but they were now offered to all of God’s people. I can say as a retired pastor that every one of us, when we mounted the pulpit on Sunday, sought to bring the incredible truths of the love, grace, and “the big reveal” that God has wrought in Jesus Christ to a level that everyone listening would get “caught up” in them, claim them as her or his own, and embark on the grand journey that is the Christian faith. We also hoped that for those who had long been on that journey, we might offer new light for their path, or significant homiletical challenges that might further spur and nurture their faith. Honestly, we preachers OH so much want to do this, and often “amen” the sermon feeling like I think Paul often felt when addressing the Corinthian church—“Close, but no cigar.” Even when we descended from the pulpit on that rare Sunday when we thought we accomplished at least a good part of our goal, the fight at the next church board meeting or nasty phone call from a parishioner suggesting “you don’t know your Bible, pastor” called our evaluation—and sometimes our whole ministry—into question. So it was for Paul here, if you read the Corinthian epistles honestly. But he never stopped trying, and neither do we modern grassroots “apostles.” The good news is that thanks to Paul’s efforts, the church is still here, and is quite thriving in many corners, and maybe thanks to our efforts, it will continue for another 2,000 years.

 

Seeing things VERY differently is the key, not just to the survival of the church, but to its continual efforts to remain relevant. The church IS still here because in each age, it found new ways to reach unbelievers with a message and public witness that caught their interest, or that led to their healing. But if it puts down anchors and tries to “stay” in any one age, time will pass it by, and it will have yielded to the “comfortable” wisdom of humans and got passed over by God’s available “wisdom of the ages.” As I said earlier, we can’t ever totally removed the fingerprints of humans from what we believe or claim to believe God is doing in the world, nor should we, if we are to be truly Christian. After all, we follow a Savior who claimed to be both fully human AND also be the “fullness of the Godhead, bodily.” Seeing things differently means that we understand the we MUST be the actors in ushering in the Kingdom of God to our age, AND God’s Holy Spirit and God’s wisdom can flow though us in these efforts almost like George Lucas’s “Force.” The efforts must be ours because we ARE the “hands and feet” of Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, are also his witnesses. We can believe this and let the Spirit lead and empower us, or we can take matters into our own hands—which the church has so often done—and look so pedestrian that unbelievers are not spurred to inquire about us, and believers within the walls of the church lose interest. And what happens when believers lose interest? Usually, we provoke some kind of theological or biblical divergence and SPLIT. That’s never a good witness to the uninitiated, by the way. Never. Doing this yet again is evidence of church leaders seeing things the “same old way,” instead of very differently with the wisdom of God. Shame on us.

 

But there is much good news in this passage! In verse 9, Paul writes: “…as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God.’” God has great things in store for YOU, for ME, for the CHURCH, and for the WORLD, if we will just open our minds and hearts to seeing things differently. How differently? Different TODAY than what the church saw twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, maybe even yesterday! The Spirit of God looks at what IS and what WILL BE, and offers the church wisdom as to how to “put our hands to the plow and not look back.” Yet, we are so easily seduced into plowing the same ground, over and over again. That is seeing things as they WERE, not how they CAN BE. Seeing things “differently” is about claiming the promise and recipe of verse 9—seeing things that NO EYE HAS SEEN (yet), nor EAR HEARD (yet), nor what our “pea-pickin’” little hearts can imagine (yet). Around a hilly and confusing city like Pittsburgh, we often say, “You can’t get there from here.” Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians—and US—that it's time we start believing we CAN get there from here! We CAN be a diverse, inclusive church AND we can be a Holy Spirit led church as well. We CAN put our human fingerprints on the gates to the in-breaking Kingdom of God, in fact, we MUST, but we do so knowing our Savior is God AND “one of us,” and that our fingerprints are also HIS fingerprints. Open the gates! Let the “captives” out and welcome the those seeking redemption in! We all need new eyesight, if this is to happen in our time. The old way of seeing will not take us to the new places the Kingdom of God needs to go.

 

There is great news here, too, for each and every Christian believer, regardless of where you are on your journey. God’s “wisdom of the ages,” the “secret” that was “hidden” for so long, have been revealed, and they are YOURS for the taking. His name is Jesus Christ, and he cares for YOU as much as he cares for the whole world. The Spirit of God that resides in your heart right now is proof of that. Trust the wisdom, trust the grace, trust the embrace of God’s love in Jesus. And trust the new way of seeing things they will lead you to! Amen. 

What's Next?

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